Over the next six months of 2018, Bulgaria will hold the presidency of the Council of the European Union. It is for the first time that Bulgaria heads the Council after 11 years of its entry. At the same time, it is for the first time in the EU that the rotating presidency is held by a member state that does not form part of the Eurozone or the Schengen Area. Moreover, Bulgaria ranks last in the EU by the economic potential (BSEC: GDP, 2016 – US$18.886 per capita) and significantly depends on Russia’s energy (95% of the consumed gas). So, this presidency is a double test. On the one hand, there will be tested Bulgaria’s capacity to manage the multiple European files and to keep an internal political balance that is indispensable for advancing the justice sector reform and fighting corruption. On the other hand, the EU is itself tested as Bulgaria and Romania are the only member states suspected of being excessively corrupt and of having various dysfunctions in the legal systems. Therefore, the assessment commenced by the EU in 2007 will not stop in 2018 either and this will delay Bulgaria’s entry into the Schengen Area for at least one year.
For its rotating presidency of 2018, Bulgaria chose the motto “United We Stand Strong”. Such an approach is not accidental and refers to the mainstream synchrony inside the EU to lay emphasis on the consolidation of the European unity around a stronger, more secure and solidary Europe. At external level, the Bulgarian EU presidency’s attention to the Eastern neighborhood (IPN, November 27, 2017), including to Moldova, in 2018 will be more diluted, unlike in 2017, when Estonia powerfully lobbied for the Eastern Partnership (EaP). Bulgaria already announced publicly that it will direct considerable diplomatic efforts to the Western Balkans. The stimulation of the European integration and entry agenda in the region is imperative as this will pave the way for 2020, when the composition of the European Commission and European Parliament is to be renewed. Until then, Bulgaria and the others aim to animate the cooperation in the region by (inter)connection projects. Such an approach is beneficial for diminishing tension in the region, where the territorial disputes (Slovenia-Croatia, Croatia-Bosnia, Kosovo-Montenegro etc.), interethnic disagreements (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia-Kosovo) and intrastate instability (FYR Macedonia) distract attention from reforms or defer them.
Priorities of Bulgaria
In continuation of the Estonia presidency (IPN, August 3, 2017), Bulgaria will pursue the 18-month strategic agenda of the Council of the EU, which will be also joined by Austria in the second half of 2018. However, Bulgaria will focus on four priorities.
First of all, Bulgaria intends to continue the efforts of the cohesion policy needed to reduce the economic and social discrepancies inside the EU. Thus, such particular attention will be devoted to the negotiation of the new Multiannual Financial Framework or, in other words, of the way in which the EU funds will be distributed after 2020.
Security from the perspective of the management of migration, asylum and external borders of the EU will represent the second priority of Bulgaria.
The combination of forces to develop the European digital single market with investments in education and empowerment of young people is the third priority of the Bulgarian EU presidency, which exactly coincides with the views of Estonia and Austria.
The fostering of the Western Balkans’ entry into the EU is Bulgaria’s greatest ambition during its presidency. According to this objective, Bulgaria intends to develop individual action plans with concrete steps for each of the countries of the region. In parallel, projects are to be launched to connect the countries in such spheres as transport, airspace, energy, and education, in particular to extend Internet access or gradually eliminate roaming charges. To sum up the results of its presidency, Bulgaria plans to organize the Western Balkans Summit in Sofia in May 2018.
Challenges faced by Bulgaria
The challenges faced by Bulgaria reside in the already chronic political instability and the rule of law disorders.
The victory of the pro-EU party GERB headed by Boiko Borisov against the Socialists, with a difference of 5%, in the early elections of March 2017 (32% vs. 27%) is insufficient for sustainable governance. Even if the alliance with the nationalist forces (United Patriots) enables Borisov to rule, a political collapse in the period of the EU presidency remains a high probability. The resignation tendered by the Speaker of Parliament representing the GERB in November 2017 following Socialists’ threats that they will boycott the sessions and will thus cause a legislative crisis show how powerful the opposition is. The latter, even if it is against the abandonment of the EU, is in favor of the elimination of sanctions against Russia. There is also the powerful figure of the Socialist-backed President Rumen Radev, who seems to indirectly discourage the anticorruption reforms.
The quality of rule of law is depicted in the report that assesses progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism of November 15, 2017. This clearly shows that after ten years of attentive assessment by the EU, only one area of the six monitored witnessed major positive changes. Thus, the most substantial progress was made in increasing the independence of the judiciary. A series of measures were initiated, but weren’t fully implemented, preventing thus Bulgaria from getting the go-ahead for the Schengen. The shortcomings refer to: i) fluidization of the legal framework for the examination of grand corruption cases; ii) justice sector and prosecution service reform; iii) mechanism for fighting grand corruption in the public sector; iv) fighting of petty corruption and corruption in the bodies of the local public authorities; v) reporting of cases of organized crime and confiscating of ill-gotten property.
Other major challenges go to its geographical position. Being in the proximity of the Western Balkans, this is easily contaminated with the negative dynamics in the region. Apart from the political importance of the Western Balkans and the prevention of eventual intraregional or even intrastate conflicts (case of FYR Macedonia in 2016-2017), the stopping of illegal migration is the key concern of Bulgaria and the rest of Europe. The main fears related to the region derive from the negative perceptions of the real capacity to control the physical borders, high corruptibility at the level of institutions and the level of sophistication of the organized crime in the region. As a result, the southern borders of the Western Balkans are regarded as something unsafe and, respectively, as something that should be strengthened.
Also, Bulgaria is contiguous to Turkey, where there are about 400,000 Bulgarians of Turkish origin, approximately 200,000 of whom have Bulgarian passports. At the same time, about half a million Bulgarian Turks form a politically active minority that supports the party “Movement for Rights and Freedom“ (DPS), which won about 9% of the poll in 2017. The de-Europeanization tendencies fuelled by the deterioration of democracy in Turkey, caused by the constitutional referendum of 2017 and cleaning initiated in civil bodies following the failed coup of 2016, generate disquiet. For the Bulgarian authorities, the risks derive from the worsening of the dialogue with Ankara and intensification of suspicions about Turkey’s interference via the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. In the case of the European decision-makers, the main fear related to the restraining of democracy derives from the eventual abandonment of the already controversial arrangements concerning the management of illegal migration. Turkey’s entry into the EU has been already postponed for an indefinite period (European Commission, September 13, 2017), while in the summer of 2017 the European Parliament even requested to suspend the accession negotiations.
Bulgaria is among the countries in which Russia feels comfortable. This counts on the Bulgarian Socialists who oppose sanctions and on the presence of Russian assets in the Bulgarian energy sector. Even if the South Stream gas pipeline wanted by Russia in Bulgaria failed in 2014 under the pressure of the European competition legislation, the Russian interests remain powerfully anchored in other energy sources. Thus, besides providing nuclear fuel for the Kazloduy nuclear power plant, Russia also plans to actively become involved in the development of the electric power production capacities. Even if the leverage held by Russia in the Bulgarian politics and energy sector does not provide it with real possibilities of disturbing the Bulgarian presidency, this is a significant trump card with medium- and long-term effects. However, the more active presence of Russia in Bulgaria and the region should mobilize the EU to make new commitments in relation to the Western Balkans.
Bulgarian presidency and implications for Moldova
The fact that Bulgaria chose to concentrate on the Western Balkans shows that the Eastern Partnership will not be in the center of the EU’s attention for at least six months. At practical level, this cannot essentially influence the situation of the countries that managed to develop a separate bilateral legal and institutional framework with the EU. Consequently, the countries with Association Agreements, which include Moldova, will continue to be in the orbit of the EU, but the Eastern European countries without new agreements with the EU (Azerbaijan, Belarus) could be partially shadowed.
In reality, the financial resources for Moldova and other EaP countries are pre-established until 2020. That’s why Bulgaria’s efforts to muster funds and attention for the Western Balkans cannot modify the budget for the Eastern European countries if only the governments of Moldova, Ukraine or other countries fail to do particular reforms. In such a case, the money will be simply redirected for other EU costs, including for projects in the Balkans. This also applies to the direct budget support, macro-financial assistance or grant components (for example, energy projects) that Brussels has available for Moldova. The €28 million in budget support, which was intended initially for the justice sector reform in Moldova, but wasn’t transferred by the EU due to the insufficient progress made in 2014-2015, went through such a circuit.
What puts Moldova in difficulty in the long and medium terms is the wish of Bulgaria and of the EU in general to focus on the integration of the Western Balkans into the European area. Even if this will have a positive impact on the reduction of insecurities in Europe, the digestion of the Western Balkans will necessitate time and resources that will decrease after 2020 owing to the Brexit. Consequently, besides the political saturation of the EU for enlargement following the absorption of the Western Balkans, Moldova and other EaP states could also experience a shortage of EU funds.
Instead of conclusions...
The priorities of the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the European Union are beneficial for strengthening European security, safety and solidarity. There is yet persisting uncertainty about Bulgaria’s capacity to successfully complete its duties as president of the EU Council without experiencing a new political crisis out of which those that sympathize with Russia could emerge forcefully. Unlike Estonia or even Austria, Bulgaria is situated near not at all clam geographical areas, where Turkey and the Western Balkans emanate instability (FYR Macedonia).
Neither Moldova nor other countries of the Eastern Partnership have something to lose from Bulgaria’s concentration on the Western Balkans during the next six months. Only those unpleasant situations when an abandoned or incomplete reform in countries like Moldova can make the EU change the destination of the financial assistance, including in favor of the Balkans, can be an exception.
In general, the Bulgarian presidency will not produce radical changes, in the short run, in the status-quo of the Eastern Partnership, which fully depends on the quality of internal governance in the region and on Russia’s actions that will be launched by Vladimir Putin after the presidential elections of March 2018, which he is expected to win and would thus serve until 2024.
Areas of interes: European integration, European policies, EU's foreign policy, migration and energy security.
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